The first signs of widespread political dissent in Russia surfaced nearly a century before the Russian Revolution, following the death of Tsar Alexander I in December 1825. Ever since the War of 1812 , many Russians, especially military personnel who had served abroad, were inspired by growing democratic movements in Europe. Some even began to call for a formal Russian constitution with guarantees of basic rights. Alexander actually considered the idea of a constitution, and indeed granted one to Poland, but never made up his mind about creating one for Russia.
The tsar’s death in 1825 created a fleeting appearance of weakness in the Russian leadership. Alexander had no legitimate children, and there was confusion over which of his two brothers would succeed him. The eldest brother, Constantine, was technically next in line but had earlier given up his right to be tsar when he married a woman outside of his class. Therefore, the crown passed to the youngest brother, Nicholas I, resulting in a small public scandal. Seeing opportunity in the momentary chaos, 3,000 Russian soldiers marched into the center of St. Petersburg, demanding that Constantine take the throne and also calling for a constitution. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and the surviving demonstrators, who called themselves Decembrists, were arrested and exiled to Siberia. In the coming years, they came to be seen as heroes among Russian revolutionaries.
In 1861, Tsar Alexander II, Nicholas I’s eldest son and successor, formally abolished serfdom, freeing Russia’s serfs from indenture to landowners. Though a positive development in some ways, it also created a number of new problems, including a severe economic crisis and significant resentment from landowners. The event also inspired more open discussion of other political reforms, once more raising public awareness of the fact that Russia lacked a constitution.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, a host of organizations formed to promote the introduction of a constitution, a parliamentary government, and socialistic values to Russia. Although most of these groups were peaceful, some began to toy with the use of violence in order to force change. A series of assassination attempts on Alexander II ensued, and in 1881, one of these attacks succeeded. Members of a group called The People’s Will killed Alexander II by throwing a bomb underneath his carriage as it rode through the streets of St. Petersburg. As a result, the new tsar, Alexander’s son Alexander III, cracked down severely on all forms of public resistance. Although the assassination failed to trigger a revolution as the plotters had hoped, the incident did serve as a source of inspiration to underground revolutionaries throughout the country, who increasingly saw the autocracy as vulnerable.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Russian society had never been more divided, nor had a Russian tsar ever been so far estranged from his people. Tsar Nicholas II, who had come to power in 1894, had never shown leadership skills or a particular desire to rule, but with the death of his father, Alexander III, the Russian crown was thrust upon him. In person, Nicholas II was mild-mannered, even meek; lacking the personality of a leader, his rule was clumsy, and he appeared weak before the people. When it came to public opposition or resistance, he avoided direct involvement and simply ordered his security forces to get rid of any problem as they saw fit. This tactic inevitably resulted in heavy-handed measures by the police, which in turn caused greater resentment among the public.
The year 1905 brought the most extreme examples of Nicholas II’s perceived indifference, brutality, and weakness. On Sunday, January 9, a crowd of over 100,000 marched peacefully through the center of St. Petersburg. Eventually they assembled in Palace Square in front of the tsar’s Winter Palace and, unaware that the tsar was not in town that day, called for the tsar to appear so that they could present him with a petition.
The police, who had just finished putting down a series of strikes by industrial workers, followed their standing orders to get rid of any problems. Their solution was to open fire on the crowd, which included women and children as well as church leaders. As the crowd scattered, police pursued them on horseback, continuing to fire on them. Many in the crowd were trampled to death in the ensuing panic. Estimates of the total death toll range from a few hundred to several thousand.
News of the massacre spread quickly, and many saw it as a sign that the tsar no longer cared about his people. The incident earned Nicholas the title “Nicholas the Bloody” even though he did not in fact know about the violence until it was already over. An unorganized series of demonstrations, riots, strikes, and assorted episodes of violence erupted across Russia in the following months.
Any chance for Nicholas II to regain his standing was soon lost, as Russia was rocked by a long series of disasters, scandals, and political failures. During the first half of 1905, Russia suffered a humiliating military defeat against Japan. Later in the year, the tsar reluctantly gave in to heavy political pressure and granted Russia its first constitution. Permission to form a parliament, called the Duma, was also soon granted.
The Duma became a constant thorn in Nicholas’s side, as increasingly radical political parties emerged into the open after years of existing underground. Nicholas dealt with the problem by repeatedly dissolving the Duma, forcing new elections. During the same period, a renewed outbreak of assassinations and terrorism prompted the tsar to empower his prime minister, Petr Stolypin, to eliminate the threat of terror once and for all. Stolypin established a system of quick military trials for suspected terrorists, promptly followed by public hangings. Thousands were executed over the next several years. In 1911, however, Stolypin himself was fatally shot by an assassin.
In the meantime, Nicholas’s own family became the subject of a different sort of crisis. His wife, Alexandra, had begun consulting with a mystic peasant named Grigory Rasputin in a desperate attempt to help her hemophilic son, Alexis. In time, the self-proclaimed monk Rasputin gained political influence over the tsar through his wife, while at the same time engaging in scandalous sexual escapades throughout the Russian capital. Rumors quickly spread that Rasputin had magical powers and that he had the entire royal family under some sort of spell.
It was in the midst of this scandal that Nicholas drew Russia into World War I in the summer of 1914. The war was a disaster for Russia: it caused inflation, plunged the country into a food shortage, and ultimately cost the lives of nearly 5 million Russian soldiers and civilians, as well as a series of humiliating military defeats.
The war was the final straw for the Russian people. Although Russian aristocrats had Rasputin killed in a last-ditch effort to preserve the tsar from ruin, it was too late, as popular discontentment was at an all-time high. Within three months, Russia would be without a monarch for the first time in its history.
In hindsight, nearly a century of warning signs preceded the Russian Revolution, as the Russian aristocracy drifted further and further away from the people over which it ruled. Starting in the early 1700s with Tsar Peter the Great, the ruling Romanov family increasingly modeled itself on, and intermarried with, the great royal families of Europe. Over time, the Romanovs estranged themselves from the Russian people and progressively undermined the legitimacy of their own rule.
At the same time, Russians had more exposure to the culture and happenings of Europe than ever before, and many were inspired by the various democratic and socialist movements taking place there. As dissent grew among the Russian people, the monarchy responded with intolerance and by imposing heavy penalties upon all who openly criticized or resisted the government. A series of military failures, starting with the Crimean War in the mid-1800s, and continuing with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 and finally World War I, further damaged the image of Russia’s leaders.
By the early twentieth century, Russia was thus ripe for a revolution. Never in Russian history had so many political organizations existed at the same time. Moreover, many of these organizations were operating outside of Russia itself, where they could plan freely, raise money, and better educate themselves on contemporary political philosophy.